Famine as divine punishment following Gratian’s anti-pagan legislation
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For a presentation of Symmachus’s life, see: Symmachus, Speeches II.12-14.
This text is part of the corpus of the Relationes that Symmachus addressed to the emperors when he was prefect of the city of Rome in 384 CE. Concerning the political context in which Symmachus fulfilled this prefecture, it is important to remember that in August 383 CE the emperor Gratian had been murdered by the men of the usurper Maximus, who had been proclaimed Augustus by his troops in Britain. During the spring of 383 CE he invaded Gaul. One direct consequence of Maximus taking control of Gaul and killing Gratian was that many barbarian groups threatened various provinces anew. The Huns and Alani went into Pannonia, and the Juthungi into Rhetia – Pannonia and Rhetia being provinces that were under the authority of the young half-brother of Gratian, Valentinian II, who was then 8 years old and lived in Milan. Maximus then established his residence in Trier and asked Valentinian II to join him there. The opposition between the two parties was strengthened by the fact that Maximus was a Nicean and that Valentinian was under the influence of his mother Justina, who was an Arian and had constituted around him a whole Arian court. The bishop of Milan, Ambrose, a leading figure of the Nicean faith in the West, thus tried to play the role of mediator between Maximus, Valentinian II and Theodosius (on these controversies, see Ambrose of Milan, Letter XXI.1, 9, 10). After the sending of legates, Theodosius recognised Maximus as emperor in August 384 CE with the condition that he did not attack Valentinian’s territories, namely Italy, Illyricum and Africa. Maximus was then entrusted with Britain, Gaul, and Spain. However, from the point of view of the court in Milan, this situation looked more like a kind of “armed peace.” In that context Justina and the entourage of Valentinian II at Milan wanted to gain support. For this reason they pushed for granting the prefecture of Italy-Illyricum-Africa and the Urban Prefecture of Rome to two upholders of the traditional Roman religion, namely Vettius Agorius Praetextatus and Symmachus (on this point see Callu, Symmaque, p. xxxix-xl). By choosing these two men, Valentinian II’s entourage tried to enrol a large part of the Roman aristocratic milieu who, in previous years, had been disappointed by Gratian and especially by his anti-pagan measures (Vera, Commento, p. xlviii-xlix, 18-19).
The corpus of the Relationes consists of 49 letters, some of which were independent and self-sufficient documents, and some that were a sort of memoranda that went with technical files (on this point, see Callu, Symmaque, p. liv). According to Domenico Vera, most of the letters of the collection remained first in Symmachus’s private archives, and it is probably not before the 6th century CE that the prefectural letters of Symmachus were gathered as a collection (Vera, Commento, p. xc-xcv). In this third Relatio, enacted between July and September 384 CE, Symmachus speaks for the second time in the name of the Roman Senate to the emperor Valentinian II during an imperial audience, in order to ask for the reinstatement of the status of the Roman religious cults that had been altered by the anti-pagan measures taken under Gratian. This text appears thus less as a letter, and more as a published speech (Callu, Symmaque, p. lii). The fact that Symmachus speaks in the name of the whole Senate cannot be interpreted as evidence for the fact that all the senators supported the urban prefect. In fact, during his urban prefecture Symmachus was sometimes not supported by many senators, be they part of the Christian or pagan groups of the Roman curia. So, when in the Relatio III Symmachus defends the restoration of the Altar of Victory, he defends what only some of the senators considered to be a just cause; and even among the senators who supported Rome’s traditional religion Symmachus did not enjoy unanimous support (on that point, see Vera, Commento, p. xliv-xlvi).
The main theme of Relatio III is announced in paragraph 3 when Symmachus writes under his name and that of the senators: “As a consequence, we are asking for the reinstatement of the status of the religious cults which had been useful to the Republic for a long time.” Among the specific requests exposed in this speech there is the question of the restoration of the Altar of Victory to the Senate House. Indeed, having been established in the Curia with a statue of Victory by Augustus, this altar symbolised the link between the imperial regime and Roman traditional religion (see Vera, Commento, p. 13). It was also an essential element for the holding of the sessions of the Senate. Before each session the senators used to offer incense and libations on it, and each year senators used to pronounce vows in favour of the emperor and the res publica (this point is recalled in § 5). The altar had been removed from the Curia under Constantius II, reinstalled by Julian, and finally removed again under Gratian in 382 CE. Gratian had also suppressed various privileges of the Vestals, as they saw their tax exemptions removed, they were forbidden to receive legacies in land, and they were denied a free share of the annona. Finally, Gratian had also removed public subsidies from the pagan ceremonies, authorised the confiscation of the lands of the temples and of the sacerdotal collegia in favour of the res privata, and he also refused to receive the pontifical robe from a delegation of senators (see Vera, Commento, p. 16-17). All these decisions caused a definitive break between Gratian and many of the upholders of traditional Roman religion in Rome and in Italy and all the more so because these anti-pagan measures had been taken by distant emperor and bureaucrats who, in 382 CE, were spending their last months at Trier, before the definitive transfer of the imperial court from Trier to Northern Italy (Brown, Through the Eye, p. 104).
Relatio III is organised in three main parts. Having first recalled the conditions in which a first embassy had been sent to defend the cause of religious tolerance towards Roman traditional cults, Symmachus mentions the case of Victory and of its altar, and defends the idea that the religious diversity that existed for centuries in the various cities of the Empire is a constitutive element of Rome’s history, implying thus that this diversity could not be suppressed (III.4-8; see Relatio III.8). The second part is a transitional one. It contains a prosopopoeia of Rome in which Rome speaks to the Roman emperors and mentions exempla from the Republican times to prove that her greatness has always been based upon the performance of the traditional sacred rites (see Symmachus, Relatio III.9-10). In the third part (III.11-17), Symmachus deals with the question of the suppression of the subsidies to the Vestals and puts it in relation to the famine that affected Rome and Italy in 383 CE. The text presented here deals precisely with that causal relationship. Finally, Symmachus ends his speech by stating that the restoration of public funding for the Roman cults would not go against the personal beliefs of the Christian emperors, but would rather prove that they felt responsible for the common welfare of the Empire (§ 18-20).
Following a providentialist conception of History, Symmachus presents the misfortunes (incommoda) recently experienced by the Roman nation (gens) as being the direct consequence of the measures taken by Gratian towards Roman cults, especially his decision to suppress most of the Vestals’ privileges. As rightly recalled by Peter Brown, the portion of the annona that was granted to the Vestals had a high “symbolic significance” as it represented “the perpetual sacred exchange between the earth and the gods, which ensured the protection of the empire and of the stupendous human settlement of Rome”. To remove that privilege of the Vestals thus had serious consequences, one of which was to harm the fertility of Rome’s provinces (Brown, Through the Eye, p. 106). We will come back to the issue of the historicity of that famine, however it is important to recall that to explain a dramatic event – be it a death, an invasion, a war, a natural catastrophe or a famine – through the fact that someone or a group has/have not worshiped god(s) in a right way or even has not worshiped the right god(s), is a commonplace of antique historiography (on providentialist interpretations in late antique historiography, see Mazzarino, La fine del mondo antico, p. 59-78). Obviously, this kind of providentialist approach was widespread among Jews and Christians who relied on biblical passages such as Deuteronomy 11:16-17: “Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you” (NRSV) (for a similar reasoning in Rabbinic texts about the destruction of the Temple, see Tosefta Menahot 13:21-23; Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 1:1, 38c). Among the Christians who use this type of reasoning in their apologetic demonstrations, one could quote Tertullian. In his Apology he argues that Christians are not the cause of the public misfortunes and that calamities existed before the advent of Christ. He then develops the idea that it is the Christian God who sent all these calamities, before and after the advent of Christ, and concludes that these calamities had been far less terrible since the existence of Christians (Tertullian, Apology XL-XLI; see also Ad nationes I.9). Another example is that of Cyprian who, in his Address to Demetrianus dated from 252 CE, responds to the proconsul of Africa who stated that the problems that the province was facing, such as war, famine, and plague, were the fault of the Christians because they refused to worship the Roman gods (chapters II-IV). To answer the proconsul, Cyprian develops the argument that the current state of the empire is a punishment for pagan neglect of the one true God. The present pestilences are thus proposed by Cyprian to have been foretold in the Scriptures and thus very well deserved. On the other hand, he implied that all might be reconciled if God were worshipped by all the inhabitants of the empire (Cyprian, Address to Demetrianus V; we may also add to this list Arnobius, Against the Pagans I.1-24; III.11; IV.24; these various Christian authors are quoted in Vera, Commento, p. 50). Thus, when Symmachus presents the neglect of the gods due to Gratian’s recent anti-pagan legislation as the main cause of the recent famine that affected the Western provinces, he fits in with a providentialist conception of History that was shared both by Jews, Christians and the followers of the Roman religion but was variably used by the members of these groups especially in polemic contexts.
Another interesting point of Symmachus’s argumentation is the historicity of the famine he presents as having been the direct consequence of the decision supported by the imperial power to remove the public subsidies usually granted to Vestals. As he fulfilled the office of Prefect of the city Symmachus was himself directly concerned by the question of the supply of the city, and thus logically aware of the problems related to the variations of the harvests in the provinces of the Empire that used to supply the city of Rome. In his Letter II.6 addressed to his brother Flavian in 383 CE Symmachus actually says that the plebs of Rome was then riotous because of the lack of food. He adds: “This year, every place is close to famine; the fleet has been rerouted towards other ways” (Annus ubique ad famem proximus. Classis in alios conversa cursus). The difficulty of the food supply in Italy and especially in Rome in 383 CE is not denied by Ambrose nor by Prudentius in the responses they formulated to Symmachus’s arguments (Ambrose, Letter LXXIII.21; Prudentius, Against Symmachus II.955-964, 992-1000).
Concerning the famine that occurred in 383 CE, Symmachus says that is was a “general” one (fames publica). Lellia Cracco Ruggini has interpreted an extract from the Ambrosiaster (Questio CXV.49) as referring to this famine of 383 CE, the text saying that the famine affected the regions that usually provided supply to Rome – that is Italia annonaria (the northern diocese of Italy), Africa, and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily – and that the Pannonian provinces suffered serious destructions (see Cracco Ruggini, “‘Fame laborasse Italian’,” p. 88-89, 94). This testimony must to be compared with the situation described in the letter that Ambrose addressed in 384 CE to Valentinian II to refute Symmachus’s arguments brought in Relatio III and in which he writes: “And yet we know that even last year [i.e. in 383 CE] several provinces produced abundant crops. Need I mention that the Gallic provinces were better off than usually? The Pannonian provinces sold corn which they had not sown, and the Second Raetian province suffered from envy provoked by its fertility: for the province which is normally reasonably safe from invasion because of its sterility has attracted a hostile invasion by its fertility. The autumn harvest was sufficient to feed Liguria and the Venetian provinces. It would therefore appear that even last year the harvest was not totally withered by sacrilege, while this year has been prosperous, with produce rewarding faith” (see Ambrose, Letter LXXIII.21; translation in Liebeschuetz and Hill, Ambrose of Milan, p. 88). The reading of the Ambrosiaster confirms Symmachus’s testimony according to which the famine of 383 CE was serious and concerned numerous Western provinces. However Ambrose’s testimony also shows that some provinces such as Gaul, Pannonia or Raetia Secunda were not concerned by these bad harvests, a testimony that thus slightly challenges Symmachus’s (see Cracco Ruggini, “‘Fame laborasse Italian’,” p. 91-92).
Thus, Symmachus must have chosen to exaggerate the scope of the famine of 383 CE for three reasons. The first one is obvious, it gave much more credit to his demonstration according to which the measures against the Roman traditional cults caused a tremendous catastrophe.
Second, this focus on the provinces of the Empire has also to be put in relation with the global scope that Symmachus wants to give to his speech. Actually, since the first sentence of the passage presented here, Symmachus wants to show that he does not only defend the particular interests of a small and privileged group he is part of. In that perspective, he says that the orientations of the imperial policy towards religious cults from Gratian’s reign onwards, and especially the imperial decision to remove the public subsidies to the Vestals, is not only a problem for the aristocrats, especially the ones living in Rome or in Italy, who still believed in the gods. His argument is that the negative consequences of such a policy were felt by all the Romans (Romani generis) (on this idea see Callu, Symmaque, p. 83, n. 2). As a consequence, when he deals with the famine caused by this anti-pagan legislation, Symmachus insists upon its negative consequences upon all the provinces of the Empire, and not upon the city of Rome itself. This choice is surprising as it goes against a common idea that is attested in the Latin repertory throughout centuries, namely the idea that Italy or the city of Rome itself are both the nurse and the nursling of all the provinces of the Empire (Pliny the Elder speaks about Italy terra omnium terrarum alumna eadem et parens; “a land which is both the nursling and the parent of all other lands,” Pliny the Elder, Natural History III.39; much later Rutilius Namatianus reuses this image by saying that Rome is the nurse – in the sense of a benefactor –, but it becomes in its turn the nursling thanks to the participation of its provinces, see Rutilius Namatianus, On his Return I.145 commented in Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.43-92). The message conveyed by this imagery is that the city of Rome, namely the core and the benefactor of the whole Roman Empire, was also dependent from the peripheries of its Empire that provided the necessary supply to her. We can thus see that Symmachus’s perspective is different. His aim was to insist upon the negative consequences of the religious policy of the Christian emperors first and foremost for all the provincials, so that the reproaches and demands he makes in this speech could not be interpreted as the claims of a small group, that of the pagan senators of Rome.
It can finally be added that in 384 CE, that is the year when Symmachus fulfilled his prefecture and composed this text, in another letter addressed to his brother, he also expressed his fear to experience another famine in Rome because of the delays in the transportation of the African wheat (Letter II.7.3). On this occasion, he expressed his regrets to have been obliged to expulse many people who had settled themselves recently in the imperial capital in order to prevent some famine and disorders. Regarding these expulsions he writes: “What a detestation among provincials cost us this miserable security” (Quanto nobis odio provinciarum constat ista securitas?). As Symmachus wrote his Relatio III in this precise context, it may explain why, when he expresses his opinion about the famine that followed Gratian’s death, he insists much upon the fate of the provinces.
This passage of the Relatio III that Symmachus addressed in 384 CE to the emperor Valentinian II is a good example of how the followers of the Roman religio continued, at the end of the fourth century CE, to defend their religious beliefs by employing arguments that fit with a providentialist conception of history. Symmachus’s choice to develop the theme of the famine to ask for the removal of Gratian’s religious legislation allowed him to avoid dealing with another example of the anger of the gods that was frequently quoted in the pagan milieu of the time, namely the assassination of Gratian one year after the enacting of these laws. It would have been actually too critical to mention it in front of Valentinian II (see Vera, Commento, p. 47-48). Interestingly, not very long after Symmachus composed this text, Ambrose responded to Symmachus’s argument not by inverting the providentialist reasoning, that is by stating that the Christian god did actually nothing to prevent this famine precisely because there still existed some pagans who offended him. Ambrosius chose to organise his answer in three points. As Tertullian before him, he recalled that there existed famines before the advent of the Christian faith. Second, as we saw in this comment, he argued that the harvests of 383 CE had not been as bad in the whole Empire as pretended by Symmachus. Finally, he recalled that the harvests of the year 384 CE had been pretty good and this even if Gratian’s laws had not been cancelled (Ambrose, Letter LXXIII.17-21). This verbal sparring between the two men shows how, at the end of the fourth century, the use of a providentialist explanation to give credit to one religious cause remained a usual rhetorical motif well exploited by pagans or Christians according to the aims of their demonstrations.